Tour Nativity scenes from around the world in Akron and Kirtland
From Nativity scenes made of soda cans to multicultural interpretations from around the world, Northeast Ohio is home to two places featuring hundreds of displays. In Kirtland, an annual exhibit is on view throughout the holiday season. This is also the peak time for a visit to Akron’s Nativity museum.
For centuries, cultures throughout the world have celebrated the birth of Christ around Christmastime with art that depicts the newborn Jesus along with Mary, Joseph and other figures.
2023 marks 800 years since St. Francis of Assisi created what is credited to be the first three-dimensional depiction of the Nativity, or crèche, in 1223.
Bethlehem Cave and Nativity Museum
A level below the Nativity of the Lord Jesus Catholic Church in Akron’s Springfield Township is one of the only year-round Nativity museums in the country. Amid rooms containing more than 400 displays of Nativities from around the world is a half-scale replica of the cave at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, where Jesus is believed to have been born.
Many of the Nativity sets are from the personal collection of the church’s founding priest, Rev. David Halaiko, while others were received as donations over past decades.
“I think because of the name of the church, our pastor kept getting gifts from people of Nativity sets,” said Kathleen Conrad, tour coordinator and curator of the collection. “[Halaiko] traveled a lot and would collect some, and then people would travel and bring them back to him.”
From porcelain to painted clay, wood, carved stone, sculpted metal and more, the variations of artistic representations are as diverse as the artisans who crafted them.
“This is a typical Polish style,” Conrad said, pointing to a large castle-like structure made from cardboard and foil. “It’s just amazing, you see people just take what they have. If you have marbles, I’m going to make one out of marbles.”
The marble Nativity in the collection, Conrad noted, is from Brazil.
In a display from Laos, a country that experiences heavy rain and flooding, a hut-like structure is elevated by stilts and the infant Jesus is placed in a hammock on the higher level, safe from any water below.
“You can get an idea of their country, where they lived and the environment because that’s how they would build something,” Conrad said.
Both free guided and self-guided tours are available of the Bethlehem Cave and Nativity Museum. Educational activities and scavenger hunts also provide fun for children.
A special Bethlehem Market on Dec. 10 from 1-3 p.m. will include a guided tour, activities such as making jewelry and grinding herbs, plus a taste of foods from the Holy Land. A life-size manger scene will be on display, and visitors are encouraged to dress in biblical costume for photos. Registration is required.
Historic Kirtland Nativity Exhibit
Since 2003, the Historic Kirtland Visitors Center has been home to a free annual Nativity exhibit assembled by the local congregations of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. With carefully catalogued sets in a permanent collection mixed with donations and displays on loan from residents, no exhibit is the same from year to year.
This year’s theme is “Behold, the Savior of the World,” a reflection of the more than 70 countries represented and a reminder of the belief that Christ is a savior for all.
“It’s all still the same thing: a baby, a mother and a father in a stable, yet the configurations, the artistic representations of that one concept are so different,” said Scott Barrick, site leader of Ohio Historic Sites for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“You see those various facets of the different things they’re made out of – ceramic, papier mâché, olive wood – all various interpretations of how people see and celebrate the savior in their lives, in their cultures,” he said.
A notable Nativity on display was crafted in Zimbabwe from strips of soda cans woven together with wire. In place of the more traditional animals like camels, cows or donkeys, this set includes an elephant, giraffe, hippopotamus and alligator.
“I’m always amazed by artists and by their mind and what they can create, because I’m not artistic,” said Tammy Clayton, Nativity exhibit director. “For me to see what they can see in their mind and actually make something and have you see the beauty in it, it’s just amazing to me.”
Also on view is a collection of postcards of Christmas greetings featuring imagery of the Nativity, and several cards from the personal collection of Cleveland artist and designer Viktor Schreckengost.
Children can also participate in arts and educational activities as well as a treasure hunt for finding certain elements in the Nativity displays.
The Historic Kirtland Nativity Exhibit is open to the public through Dec. 31. Visit Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-7 p.m., and Sundays, 1-7 p.m. Friday evenings in December from 5-7 p.m. there are free cookies, hot chocolate and warm cider.